ST. PETERSBURG — It's not often you see high school students cry because they love school so much.
But that was the scene at a Pinellas County School Board meeting Tuesday as the board considered whether to begin the process of shutting down Life Skills, a St. Petersburg charter school with low graduation rates and poor Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores.
"The teachers here, they're amazing," recent graduate Brittany Daignault told the board through tears. "They don't let you stop. Never."
The board voted 7-0 to begin the process of denying renewal for the 5-year-old school, which enrolls students at risk of dropping out. But that process will give Life Skills a couple more chances to plead its case, and to offer an improvement plan.
Board members made no promises. But several told more than 50 Life Skills supporters that they wanted to help the school meet academic thresholds required either by state law or its contract with the district.
"We have to make sure that Life Skills stays on the track you want it to stay on," said board member Mary Brown.
Charter schools are public schools that are given flexibility from many rules in return for more accountability. They're run by organizations outside the school district but can be shut down if they're not financially or academically up to snuff.
Life Skills enrolls 371 students, many of whom struggled in traditional schools. Its charter runs through June 30.
Over the past four years, the school has averaged a 12 percent graduation rate, according to district figures. By contrast, Bayside High School, a district-run school for at-risk students, averaged 37 percent over the same period.
Also, 8 percent of Life Skills students scored at grade level last spring on the FCAT they must pass to earn a standard diploma, compared to 21 percent of students at Bayside.
Supporters said Life Skills is more than its scores.
"They're like my mom and dad. They push me," said student Patrick Williams. Shutting down the school is like "breaking up a happy home."
Concerns about Life Skills are cropping up as the district is rolling out a revamp of its dropout prevention programs. Among the possibilities: Opening two new centers next year for 360 juniors and seniors who need flexible arrangements to recover credits, and converting Bayside into a year-round school with longer days and flexible hours.
The scrutiny also comes as the market for at-risk students is getting crowded. Currently, three charter schools serve those students: Life Skills in St. Petersburg, another Life Skills in Clearwater and Mavericks High in Largo. Another at-risk charter is slated to open in the Kenneth City area this fall, and plans are in the works for a second Mavericks in south Pinellas.
Neither Life Skills principal Phynedra Franklin nor officials at the school's corporate headquarters in Ohio returned calls for comment. White Hat Management operates 36 Life Skills centers in five states, including 10 in Florida.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.